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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Wellspring

Does the well have a future in Bengaluru, a city faced with an acute water crisis? We dig for answers at parks, apartment complexes and old homes.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
Updated: August 27, 2017 1:30:59 pm
bengaluru eco-village, bengaluru water level, bengaluru well, benngaluru monsoon, bengaluru ground water level Water world: A well in a home in Jayanagar, Bengaluru. (Source: Dipti Desai)

The well, newly dug, stands near a coconut tree, waiting for water. For that to happen, the monsoon will have to stop playing truant as it has in Bengaluru this July; the rain will have to drench the soil underneath. Only then, once the ground is a bloated and saturated sponge, will it begin to ooze water. “We have built it with a lot of hope,” says Natasha Iype, architect of Good Earth Malhar, a sustainable residential project in Kengeri, a fast-growing suburb of the city.

In this “eco-village”, it is easy to believe in the idyllic life and the possibility of living in harmony with nature. Dragonflies do a slow dance over ponds brimming with lilies. Houses, fashioned out of mud blocks, are gathered around the water bodies, as if in an intimate conversation. There are no car lanes inside; having parked your vehicle, you walk through lush green gardens to get home.

Yet, the madding crowd is near enough. When the architects from Good Earth started building here, this was largely empty farmland. It is now being swallowed up by an expanding city. With it, comes the pressure on that scarce resource: water. “On 45 acres of Malhar, we are now 400 families. But our neighbouring apartment society will house 6,000 families on the same area,” says Iype, 49. Eventually, the borewells, she says, will dry out — as they have in areas on Bengaluru’s peripheries, with no water available at 1,200 feet or deeper. Hence, the well: a large stately structure, 5m in diameter, 10m in depth, with stonework that is rarely seen now.

It sits on a downward slope, allowing stormwater from the houses above to flow into the ground near it. This is a fairly simple mechanism to bring a well to life — harvest the rain, feed it into smaller pits around it, called recharge wells, to replenish the water table. And voila. “As the rain recharges the underground water table, the well too will rise,” says Iype, who also lives in Malhar.

“Unlike other cities which have come up near the sea or a river, we put ourselves on a hill,” says Vishwanath S, an urban planner, and evangelist for rainwater harvesting in the city. For a city thus disadvantaged, Bengaluru has had a long history of human habitation. Its water security came from the wisdom of its early founders and rulers, who created a vast, cascading network of seasonal lakes by embanking the streams that flowed through. The lakes, in turn, fed thousands of small and large wells, which were essential to meeting Bengaluru’s water needs. A 17th century poem, Shiva Bharat, describes Bingarool, which was a little over 100 years old at the time, as a city of plenitude, where “each house was graced by a well”.

Today, the city’s only formal source of water is the Cauvery river, which is 100 km away. In 1969, the Cauvery Water Supply Scheme began supplying water to the city. With the degradation of the city’s lakes and the growing dependence on piped supply or borewells, the wells have largely been abandoned and forgotten — either closed or used as garbage dumps.

But the well or the bhavi is not just a faded memory in a city faced with an acute water crisis. Even now, in neighbourhoods like Jayanagar, Chamrajpet, Basavangudi, Sadashivnagar and Malleswaram, small open wells are found in many houses. As the population pressure squeezes the limited supply of water, the well is being regarded as a possible solution to the city’s thirst. “Some memories need to be revisited,” says Vishwanath, better known on social media as @zenrainman and one of the founders of the Biome Environmental Trust, which, among other things, advocates the use and revival of open wells.

A search for the open well can take you on a journey of surprises — to the seven large wells of Cubbon Park, recently revived through the efforts of Vishwanath and his team. It leads you to Mourya Jayaram, a 36-year-old builder, who found one such treasure on a plot he owned. “It must have been built in 1952, when all this was farming land,” he says, gesturing at the small hill of apartment complexes rising behind him in a layout near the Kaikondrahalli lake. He brought it back to life, of course, with the help of Manuvaddars, a community of well-diggers. It now supplies 15,000 litres of water every day to 24 flats in one of his projects. It leads you to Jyothi, whose childhood memory of fish swimming in the clear water of a well in Indiranagar, moved her to mobilise a recent clean-up of the well. “In the last two years, the interest in reviving wells has gone up,” says Shubha Ramachandran of Biome.

It leads you to the Adarsh Palm Retreat, modelled on the American suburb from nowhere — green lawns, sloping driveways, fuel-guzzlers parked in front of each villa. “We just felt something had to give,” says Krishnaraj Rao, an engineer with Nvidia, the artificial intelligence company, as he recounts the annual water crisis. “Six years ago, 60-70 per cent of our water was from the Cauvery, the rest from tankers. As the population grew, it became 50-50, then 60-40. The water was drying up,” says Rao. But, ironically, they were also faced with the problem of flooding in the basements. It turned out that the complex was sitting on a shallow aquifer. All that they had to do was dig an open well. From 2016 to early 2017, they built three. “Two of those wells now yield 25,000 litres of good quality water a day — and are connected to the central water treatment plan,” says Raj.

For every new convert to the well, there is someone like IAF veteran AK Ravindra, who, despite all advice, would not give up on his well, even when it began to be fouled by a mysterious contamination. He ended up spending Rs 3 lakh on various solutions, till Ramakrishna and Shankar, traditional well-diggers, diagnosed and cured the bhavi. Why was the well important to him? “It has been in the family since 1962. Its water is considered the purest, and still used in our daily pujas. Till the Cauvery water pipeline came to the neighbourhood, we would also use it to cook our meals,” says Ravindra. “The well made us self-sufficient,” he says.

It is a self-sufficiency lacking in the city today. Bengaluru’s population touched 10 million in 2017, and is galloping. It generates a water demand of 1,575 million litres daily (MLD). While 1,400 MLD of Cauvery water is supplied to the city, almost half of it is lost in leakage. Moreover, vast swathes of a growing city do not have access to piped water. Their only recourse is the borewell, and, failing that, the flotilla of water tankers that zips through its streets, a daily omen of a crisis not averted. In Concorde Manhattan, an apartment complex we visited in Electronic City, members of the residents’ association said they bought 90 lakh litres water a month at the cost of Rs 12 lakh. “We may have as many as 4 lakh borewells in Bengaluru pumping as much as 400-700 million litres a day,” says Vishwanath.

After two years of drought, and this year’s patchy monsoon, other parts of Karnataka are also looking to the past. Old wells have been desilted and cleaned up in Ballari and Belagavi; 21 wells, about 500 years old, have been revived in Vijayapura. “Open wells are more critical in the rain-fed peninsula, as compared to the glacier-melt-fed Gangetic plains. They have always been a part of India’s urban story, right from the Saraswati Valley civilisation,” says architect Mohan Rao, who was awarded for his work in restoring traditional water systems from the Vijayanagara kingdom in Hampi.

“For early human beings, the open well was a civilisational discovery…You are no longer tied to the tyranny of rivers and lakes. You could move inland, dig a hole in the ground and survive,” says Vishwanath, in the course of a meeting at his home. The bhavi, if connected to efficient rainwater harvesting and recharge systems, could offer Bengaluru, “which receives on an average 3,000 million litres of rain a day”, a way out of this zero-sum game, he says.

If it does so, it will have to fight what might seem like a losing battle against the deep borewells. “Over the years, I have motivated many people to revive their wells,” says S Chandra Shekar, whose well, over 50 years old, is now flush with water. It dries up in two-three days because of the number of borewells around his Jayanagar home.

It is difficult for the open well to thrive on the margins of the city, says Veena Srinivasan, fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. “Because of the kind of urbanisation, the high density of population and the paving of land, the land’s natural ability to recharge local aquifers through rain is already less,” says Srinivasan. The way out is aggressive rainwater harvesting and waste water recycling, she says.

A month since the visit to Malhar, the city’s stuttering monsoon has picked up. Traffic snarls, inundated neighbourhoods and foaming lakes paint a picture of an unfolding civic disaster. But all is not lost, if the wells are alive.

 

What is an open well?
An open well is a lined or unlined hole in the ground that accesses the shallowest groundwater available in the area. It gets water from shallow aquifers — water-bearing soil or rock layers that lie close to the surface. They are, perhaps, the earliest tool invented by mankind to access groundwater.

Where does a borewell get water from?
The borewell extracts water from deeper aquifers, which has collected over years. The exhaustion of shallow aquifers everywhere has led to the search for
deeper groundwater.

Is the water from an open well clean?
The ground acts as an excellent filter. This water is soft, does not have geogenic contamination but can have bacteriological contamination. It is important to test the water every six months.

Can rain recharge a well?
Only if rainwater is harvested and channelled either directly to the open well (after passing through a sand and gravel filter) or directed into recharge pits constructed next to an open well.

Who can dig a well?
Every region in India has traditional communities, who have been digging wells for centuries. Bengaluru’s Manuvaddars have found work in the city and outside, thanks to a new interest in wells.

(Source: Biome)

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